John Smith is a name I’ve been circling around for some time without actually hearing him so I was delighted when his new album, Hummingbird, his sixth, fell into my lap. I now have some serious catching up to do. If you haven’t encountered him yet you should know that John is a fine fingerpicking guitarist and songwriter with a very individual take on traditional songs.
John names his influences as John Renbourn and Richard Thompson. The former is obvious from his guitar style and the latter becomes so with the opening song in this set. ‘Hummingbird’ is a beautiful song of love yearned for, gained and lost and also a middle class homage to ‘Beeswing’. If you’re not immediately grabbed by it you should be listening to some other music. The second original song here is the fiery ‘Boudica’, the story of Iceni queen bolstered by strings and the third is the long modern murder ballad, ‘Axe Mountain (Revisited)’, which comes straight after the traditional ‘Willy Moore’. Whether this is actually a murder ballad is hard to say, although the set-up of the first three verses suggests it, but it feels more like a story of thwarted love and suicide.
It’s John’s approach to traditional songs that really engaged me, though. He approaches them as though they were modern with a changed note here and there and a contemporary inflection in his voice. ‘Hares On The Mountain’ has more recorded versions than you can shake a stick at but he makes you listen to it afresh as he does with ‘Lord Franklin’, a favourite of mine, I must admit.
The odd man out is Anne Briggs’ ‘The Time Has Come’ performed in the style of a sixties guitar player which is entirely appropriate given that John learned it via Renbourn. His band is used sparingly; there is lovely bass from Ben Nicholls and fiddle and whistle from John McCusker with Cara Dillon adding vocals to the closing ‘Unquiet Grave’. Sam Lakeman’s production is perfectly restrained and perfectly judged even when a song like ‘Axe Mountain’ is a temptation to pile on the drama.
Ever since my teenage epiphany at the altar of folk music, hearing Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn for the first time, I have been a devotee. The six strings of my guitar have granted me access to a sacred space between things, the unconscious interweaving sensations that allow us that gentle buzz on hearing a good folk song.
I’ve been immeasurably fortunate to open for and even play with some of my heroes and influences in the folk world; John Renbourn, Davy Graham, Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Nic Jones, Joan Baez, Wizz Jones, John Martyn, Danny Thompson, Martin Simpson and Paul Brady.
Their work and their generosity of spirit has been a constant reminder that I must keep playing, recording and touring, no matter the cost. There is always work to be done in the service of good music.
It was with this in mind that I returned to Sam Lakeman’s Somerset studio in March of 2018, two years since recording ‘Headlong’ in that same place, to commit six of my favourite folk songs to tape, alongside one cover version and three original songs.
With my guitars and notebook, I sat for a week and dug into these songs, some of which I have performed hundreds of times, but never recorded. I always chose instead to concentrate on my own writing. If I didn’t record these songs now, representing the Folk Music that I love, I felt I was going to regret it.
The tracks quickly took on their own shape in Sam’s able hands. I invited several good friends to join me in this process: Cara Dillon, John McCusker and Ben Nicholls. Each a giant in their own right, they offered subtle and deeply nuanced performances to what I feel are my most restrained recordings so far.
Sam and I adopted the motto ‘less is more’. We all know that a Folk Song’s clarity of purpose is exactly the reason why it has been played in pubs, living rooms and concert halls for hundreds of years.
I made this record for myself, for my heroes and for you.
Hummingbird A love song in the key of D, for someone I used to know. ‘Here She Comes, There She Flies.’
Lowlands Of Holland Roud 484. Widely thought to originate in the British Isles and Ireland in the early 19th century.
As soon as I started playing Lowlands Of Holland I realised this was a powerful love song, the context simply a marker on a map, with different versions found all over Britain and Ireland. The song is about love, loss and devotion.
Boudica This formidable woman was the rebel queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe, who exacted a terrible and brutal revenge upon the Romans for the degradation and abuse of her and her daughters. She is an English folk hero, her likeness immortalised in stone, but a terrifying proposition nonetheless. ‘Eighty thousand, dead and burned.’
Hares On The Mountain Roud 329. Collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset, thought to originate in the 18th century.
Sam introduced me to this song. There is potent and romantic imagery in this song, unnerving and pagan. I heard it once and have been hearing it ever since, like the call of some wild animal.
Lord Franklin Roud 487. First appeared as the broadside ballad ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’ in the mid-19th century.
Lord Franklin is a song I heard John Renbourn play many times, one that my Dad also plays in his honour. I’ve been playing this live, since I started out.
Master Kilby Roud 1434. Collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset, 1904.
I first heard Master Kilby in a pub session in Liverpool, a song that has stuck with me ever since. The lyric ‘Her skin shines like silver in every part’ is surely one of the best. Cecil Sharp collected this song in 1904, in Somerset.
The Time Has Come I first heard Anne Briggs’ classic song on the Bert & John LP. Succinct and bittersweet, this is one of my favourite songs. I hope John Renbourn would have approved of my first-take guitar parts, flying by the seat of my pants!
Willy Moore Collected in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. No-one knows who wrote it, but it’s probably from the early 20th century. I first heard this performed by the gentleman genius Wizz Jones. It’s a heart-breaking account of two young lovers’ tragedy.
Axe Mountain (Revisited) One of my favourite songs to play, this murder ballad tells the tale of a young woman who rids the world of a murderer using an elemental instrument of death. I wrote this under the Black Mountains in Wales, thinking on the Dartmoor I grew up with. The moral of the story; don’t mess with a Devon woman.
Unquiet Grave Child Ballad 78. Thought to originate in the 15th century.
This is the oldest song on the album, a strange and beautiful tale of a young lover whose grief is preventing his true love’s peace in death; an idea held by many over the years to be true.
I loved the idea of presenting this story as a duet. Who better to ask than Cara Dillon?
John Smith had just announced the release of his new album Hummingbird. It features appearances from Cara Dillon, John McCusker and Ben Nicholls, and will be released on October 5th on his own Commoner Records (via Thirty Tigers worldwide). He had also announced a huge UK headline tour (29 dates throughout October & November), and made the track ‘Willy Moore’, taken from Hummingbird, available to stream now.
An independent musician who has toured the world for almost fifteen years with his guitar and suitcase, he has independently released five albums, supported the likes of Ben Howard and Damien Rice, won critical acclaim in the UK and abroad, and performed a session guitarist and singer for the likes of Joan Baez, Lisa Hannigan and Martin Simpson.
Following his performance last weekend at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and having been played for the first time last night by Mark Radcliffe on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show, John Smith can today reveal ‘Willy Moore’, the first song from his soon to be announced new album.
Recorded at Sam Lakeman’s Somerset studio in March, John explains how the track came into his life.
“Collected in Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, no-one knows who wrote it, but it’s probably from the early 20th century. I first heard this performed by the gentleman genius Wizz Jones. It’s a heart-breaking account of two young lovers’ tragedy.”
04 October Aberdeen The Lemon Tree 05 October Ullapool Guitar Festival 10 October Cork IE Coughlan’s 11 October Cork IE Coughlan’s 12 October Limerick IE Dolan’s 13 October Dublin IE Unitarian Church 14 October Bangor NI Studio Theatre 17 October Chipping Norton The Theatre 20 October Whitby Musicport Festival 21 October Liverpool St George’s Hall 22 October Gateshead Sage Gateshead 24 October Leeds The Wardrobe 25 October Sheffield Picture House Social 26 October Thames Ditton The Ram Club 30 October Newbury Arlington Arts Centre
01 November Bury The Met Arts Centre 02 November Scunthorpe Cafe Indiependent 03 November Halifax Square Chapel 04 November York The Crescent 07 November Middlesbrough Town Hall 09 November Bristol Rough Trade 10 November Plymouth Barbican Theatre 11 November Dartmouth The Flavel 12 November Exeter Phoenix 14 November Southampton The Brook 15 November London St Pancras NEW Church (Bloomsbury) 16 November Brighton Unitarian Church 17 November Guildford St Mary’s Church